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Sundance 2023 Review: Magazine Dreams – “As a character study, it’s truly a remarkable performance.”

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Glen Wilson

Magazine Dreams opens with the visual you see above – Jonathan Majors, his sculpted form set amongst soft lighting, in the background the beautiful sounds of string music to complement.  But this moment is one of the only serene moments of the film.  What follows is an exploration of one man’s experience with body image, obsession, toxic masculinity, human connection, and mental health.

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Killian Madox (Majors) is a bodybuilder with aspirations for making it to the national stage.  It’s practically a full-time job, lifting weights, eating protein-heavy meals to cover his required 6,000 calorie intake, and injecting himself with steroids.  In between, he works part-time at a grocery store.  He tells his court-appointed counsellor it’s a six-mile drive from his house, as where he lives there are only places that sell junk food.  The more affluent, white neighbourhood houses the healthy food, and as he walks amongst its aisles either working or shopping, the customers look at him with suspicious eyes.

Killian also takes care of his grandfather in the home they share, the only real family he has left.  The two share an amiable co-existence but don’t talk much.  Killian is usually in the garage lifting weights, watching videos of old bodybuilding competitions, or writing letters to his bodybuilding hero, Brad, whose photos and magazine spreads cover every surface of his room.  He has surrounded himself with visuals of what he feels is the ideal body type, obsessed with each muscle, especially after a judge once told him his deltoids weren’t perfect.  And perfect is the only thing worth striving for, is the only way for him to make his mark on the world.  But what is the price of this beauty? To what lengths will Killian go in order to make sure he is remembered long after he is gone?

Writer-director Elijah Bynum (Hot Summer Nights) works to explore aspects of Killian’s character that are at odds with one another.  On one hand, his obsession with an almost unobtainable body isolates him, closing himself off from those in his life.  Bodybuilding is the only thing he can talk about, it’s his entire world.  And to those that don’t know him, his imposing size and stature make him even more intimidating, the horrific realities of racial bias already working against him.

Yet, Killian yearns for connection, and every effort backfires.  He asks a co-worker (Hayley Bennett) out for dinner and while initially the two seem to have fragile potential, his intensity quickly turns any emotion on her part into fear.  He posts videos on Facebook about bodybuilding, but instead of likes all he gets are comments saying he should kill himself.  His hero Brad doesn’t even reply to his increasingly aggressive fan mail.

All of these failures, the isolation, coupled with some pretty substantial “‘roid rage” make for some fairly drastic changes to Killian’s mental health, his hope extinguished, his anger heightened.  The path his character goes down could not be more dark.  Know that from the outset, this is Jonathan Majors’ show and while this film has more than a few imperfections, Magazine Dreams‘s success rides on his (very substantial!) shoulders.  I should not be surprised if his performance takes him all the way to next year’s awards season, it is that powerful.  His portrayal of Killian goes much further than his impressive physical transformation.  He seems to embody the hurt, the vulnerability, and the anger his character keeps locked up.  When the predictable explosive release takes place Majors lays it all out on the table.  There is not one iota of his being that isn’t fully present.  As a character study, it’s truly a remarkable performance.

The unfortunate aspect of Magazine Dreams is that despite a performance that makes it impossible to look away, the film’s execution becomes flawed.  That is never more true than in its final act where there were multiple fades to black that could have served as reasonable endings, only to have the film keep going.  I almost started making bets as to whether the film was finishing or not.  A tighter version of this movie exists that will likely make it even more compelling.

Audiences are likely to be divided on how Magazine Dreams deals with Killian’s mental health, and his eventual nihilistic tendencies.  In the end, Killian, who has spent years essentially killing himself for some ‘ideal’ of masculine beauty has to make a decision as to whether he lives up to the monster that some see him to be.  A film that starts with a man still holding on to hope, still able to make connections, descends instead into darkness and self-loathing.  This is not an easy watch, nor does it need to be, but it is interesting enough without needing to bring the potential expectation of an even more violent climax.  Magazine Dreams is at its best when it concentrates on the character study it wants to be; when it just lets Jonathan Majors do the astonishingly heavy lifting.

Magazine Dreams premiered January 20th at Sundance. It has in person screenings until the 28th and online screening available January 24th. Ticket information on the festival website.

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